Philipp Lahm: “Listen carefully now, Felix, I’ve got one for you”

Philipp Lahm: “Listen carefully now, Felix, I’ve got one for you”

Philipp Lahm is nowhere more welcome as tournament director of the 2024 European Championship than in Stuttgart. The Bavarian is the most famous of all the Swabian prey: his career as a world star might never have begun without VfB – or more precisely: without this phone call in May 2003.

In May 2003, Hermann Gerland excitedly picked up the phone. Not much was missing and he would have called “911”.

In any case, it was an emergency call.

Gerland was coaching FC Bayern’s second team at the time, and the fate of one of his players was almost making him lose sleep. The young man was nineteen, Bayern didn’t yet believe he could make the big leap, but Gerland felt: “It would have been a shame if he had to continue playing in the regional league.”

To clarify: Gerland was not one to spoil a talent with the higher honours too quickly. He was generally more of a sceptical grumbler, once even saying: “None of today’s professionals dare to go out on the street in the dark.”

But this nineteen-year-old was different. This was someone like him, and the extra hunter Jupp Heynckes recalls with horror what the Bundesliga defender Gerland used to be like: “I still have the open wounds on my shin.” Gerland was known as the “Tiger”, he was snappy and hungry – and when, as a coach, he saw that this nineteen-year-old could also play proper football, he offered him all over the Bundesliga. He almost got a sore ear from the many rejections – until he came across Felix Magath, who was coaching VfB at the time.

“Listen carefully now, Felix,” said Gerland, “I’ve got one for you.”

Magath knew that Tiger wouldn’t lie to me. They were on the same wavelength, they both loved the medicine ball as a training tool, and when Gerland told him that the young man also had a strong character, Magath forgot about VfB’s destitute state and went collecting with his hat to scrape together the loan fee of around 100,000 euros. This is how Philipp Lahm’s career began in the summer of 2003.

The results are well known: Best defender in the world, world champion, club world champion, Champions League winner, eight-time German champion, six-time DFB Cup winner, footballer of the year, captain of the national team, 113 international caps, 385 Bundesliga matches. Others are great for a few weeks every year, but Lahm was great week after week, game after game. He was a calf-biter at the back and a virtuoso on the ball further forward, he was a defender and a winger, and the chalk line was dusty when he was constantly bumping into himself on the wing on his way up and down the pitch.

“He’s the most intelligent player I’ve ever coached,” claims Pep Guardiola, and the Spaniard has coached Lionel Messi after all – the fact that he then made the late Lahm a playmaker in central midfield at FC Bayern was a complete accolade.

Lahm is still pulling the strings today, now as tournament director for Euro 2024. “We want,” he says, “to organise a festival that has an aha effect.” He wants to repeat the World Cup summer fairytale of 2006, and to revitalise the sense of unity and social cohesion, he rolls up his sleeves as he did back then, spits into his hands and calls out to the national team: “It has to get back into the players’ heads that they represent their country and act as a cohesive unit.” He has missed that in recent years – “that one person sacrifices themselves for the other on the pitch.”

All German footballers remember Philipp Lahm with nostalgia – and his opponents with lamentation.

Ask Nuno Capucho. The Portuguese was in the prime of his striker’s life at Glasgow Rangers when he came up against the young VfB lahm. It was in the Champions League, early in the new millennium, and the evening turned into a nightmare for Capucho. He had spent years eating up the best defenders in the world, dribbling them dizzy, playing them sick, but he never once got round Lahm. When Capucho swung out to shoot at the VfB goal, the ball was always already gone – and little Lahm was off and running with it.

In the rich history of VfB, no right-footed player has been documented who was anywhere near as good on the left flank with the wrong leg as Lahm. His ball security and overview were astonishing, even in the most difficult situations he was able to get the ball through the hollow lane to his team-mate. And when everyone would have bet that Lahm would immediately hook inside to cross on the right, he did his farmer’s trick instead, scurrying past on the outside to the byline – and all with his left foot.

Lahm still had to play in the wrong position at first, but everything was right in his head from the outset. He was once in the ZDF sports studio and said that he was not one of those who employ a court of advisors. “Two friends help me,” he said. Other young stars have long since allowed themselves to be remote-controlled by advisors of all sorts, who also get them bad weather money and a heated jersey when they play contract poker, but Lahm was Lahm. He didn’t fit the cliché of the spoilt young yob among the wimps.

In short, he was exactly the right man for VfB, who at the time could only afford budding world champions who cost nothing. In any case, he was one of those cases in which VfB brutally capitalised on the mistakes that FC Bayern made once every decade. In 1984, these mistakes were Sigurvinsson and Niedermayer, and in 1992 it was little Kögl who, as Trickerl-Wiggerl, skied everything dizzily and at the end of the season, he circled the ball into Buchwald’s head – and, bang, VfB were German champions again.

This time it was Lahm. He was there for two years before Bayern reversed their mistake. VfB didn’t quite become champions, but it was enough for Champions League celebrations, and the highly talented player got off to a flying start, bypassing all the doubters and sceptics, or as Gerland put it: “He was too easy for some people.”

And Lahm wasn’t the longest either. It was always a funny image later on when the television camera suddenly panned two heads down from goalkeeper Neuer during the national anthem, down to the DFB captain Lahm, who sang his “Blüh im Glanze dieses Glückes, blühe, deutsches Vaterland” with abandon.

The little ones, so close to the turf, don’t have an easy life. Humphrey Bogart used to have a box of bubbles or the New York telephone directory shoved under his feet so that he could say to Ingrid Bergman in “Casablanca”: “Look into my eyes, little girl”. And often enough you hear dodgy jokes. Do you know this one? The German former world champions Hässler, Littbarski and Thon, all around sixty-one, climb onto a bar stool. “Three shots,” says Litti. The landlord replies: “I can see that. And what do you want to drink?”

The short guys then get their revenge in their own way: when Charlie Chaplin, Woody Allen, Frank Sinatra and Dustin Hoffmann stopped growing, they decided to become world stars. And footballers show that brevity is the spice of life by becoming world champions, see Maradona, Messi and Lahm. When it came to the sausage, he screwed the high studs under his boots and outgrew himself with the motto: the smaller the guy, the greater the ambition.

Philipp Lahm never let himself get down. He has outgrown the mightiest giants and can confidently have the words “He was slight, but mighty” chiselled into his gravestone one day in the distant future. His witness is Michael Ballack. For years, he was the giant “captain” of the national team, but when he was injured before the 2010 World Cup and was in a plaster corset, Lahm was immediately ready to seize power. Many people spontaneously thought of the former national left winger Dieter Eckstein, who had played for FC Nuremberg under three presidents who were around sixty-one and henceforth claimed: “The short ones with the high heels are dangerous.”

Lahm even scored headers without whining for a stool beforehand, he had that iron will. “On average, I score a goal for the national team about every two years,” he once said credibly, but at the 2006 World Cup he scored the first one in the opening game. Final score: 4:2 against Costa Rica. Lahm’s dreamlike shot, high into the corner, was the starting signal for the subsequent summer fairytale.

In Stuttgart, his birthplace as a football star, the glorious tournament came to a fitting end, first in the Hotel Graf Zeppelin and then in the stadium. “There were many incredibly wonderful experiences during the 2006 World Cup,” he recalls in quiet hours, “but the most impressive was when we came to Stuttgart for the third place match.” Actually, the air was out. The DFB team had unfortunately lost the semi-final against Italy and any attempt to motivate them again was virtually hopeless.

“And then,” Lahm later described the key moment in detail to DIE ZEIT, “we arrived in Stuttgart. I think our bus was two hours late. There was a downpour, it was pouring with rain and yet, I’m guessing, 15,000 fans were waiting outside our hotel to cheer us on. It was an incredible feeling. Down below, the streets were cordoned off. We were upstairs with the physiotherapists at ten o’clock in the evening and people were still singing outside into the night. That was amazing. That gave us the motivation to play such a good game for third place.”

3:1 against Portugal. Cristiano Ronaldo had no answer either, the budding superstar was bitterly reminded of 1 October 2003, when the Portuguese played his first Champions League game that evening in a Manchester United shirt against VfB, and even then he was paralysed by Lahm’s presence. Only once did things get tight, Lahm hit the VfB post in desperate need of a save, from where the ball bounced to Ronaldo, who fell in a duel with VfB goalkeeper Timo Hildebrandt, and Ruud van Nistelrooy converted the penalty to make it 2-1. It stayed that way in one of the greatest games in VfB’s history. “Everything was perfect today,” said Felix Magath – and if what you hear isn’t a lie, the coach greeted and congratulated himself in front of the mirror that night for his wise foresight when it came to Lahm.

Philipp Lahm is always very welcome in Stuttgart, and when the need arises, the old Swabian booty man still lends a helping hand to VfB today. In 2022, VfB CEO Alexander Wehrle hired him as a consultant, and there was talk of weekly virtual meetings and Lahm contributing his “experience and expertise” (Wehrle). Lahm was rarely seen in the stands, but that was bearable as he can see more with his binoculars from Munich than others sitting in the stadium in Stuttgart. “With my advice,” promised Lahm, “I want to help VfB become a club that wins much more often than it loses.”

In any case, VfB was not relegated after that.

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World Cup in Switzerland 1954: “Friedrich, it’s raining!”

World Cup in Switzerland 1954: “Friedrich, it’s raining!”

When you congratulate a dead person on his 100th birthday, there must be great reasons. Like with Fritz Walter. Only one thing is sad: as a child, I tried, unsuccessfully, to break his 32-stroke record on the mini-golf course in Obertal in the Black Forest.

Every year, just before the holiday season, a colourful brochure from the Belvedere Hotel flutters into my letterbox. In the past, it was delivered by the postman. Today it arrives by e-mail.

Have you ever been to the “Belvedere”?

The hotel in Spiez on Lake Thun has been a place of pilgrimage since 1954. Every self-respecting German should visit it at least once in his life and kneel before the steps at the entrance, and when I spent a night there a few years ago, Fritz Walter’s shirt was still available in the fan shop. “From the original jersey,” the hotel guaranteed, “the pattern was taken.”

At the time, however, I had not travelled all the way to Switzerland to buy the old hero’s imitation shirt; rather, I wanted to breathe the unadulterated breath of the heroic deed in the place where the captain Walter and the right-winger Rahn, in short: the “Boss”, had stood in front of the mirror and shaved every morning back then. So I asked the friendly lady at reception, “Can I have room 303?”

She was inconsolable as she revealed to me the bitter truth: “We have remodelled.”

Room 303, the base camp of wonder, was no more. All the more, however, and this halfway saved my day, I could still make out the outlines of the historic dining room where probably the most important three words of German football were spoken on 4 July 1954 – the DFB kickers were sitting at lunch when Max Morlock from Nuremberg suddenly stared through the window and cried out as if electrified.

“Friedrich, it’s raining!”

Friedrich, that was Fritz Walter. “We were gnawing the bones off our chicken at the table,” the captain later described the moment of happiness. He liked damp grass, and his ball skills came into their own perfectly on slippery surfaces. National coach Sepp Herberger also winked: “Fritz, your weather.”

It was weather to produce heroes. And we Germans desperately needed new heroes. The old ones were dead.

The rest of the day is history, the images of the miracle are indelibly stored is all survivors. Boss Rahn’s 3:2. The soaking wet Hungarians. The damp and happy German supporters in their mackintoshes. Herbert Zimmermann’s voice, which increasingly rolled over as he shouted through his radio microphone back home: “Off! Off! The game is over! Germany is world champion!”

4 July 1954 is considered the true birth of the Federal Republic of Germany. “We are who again!”, felt a united people. Overnight, the battered German soul dared to walk upright again – and the German man reached for curling iron and pomade to come across as brilliant as Fritz Walter.

He was no ordinary man. When you congratulate a dead man on his centenary, as you are doing now to this Palatine, there must be serious reasons.

Where do we start?

The best place to start is with his goal of the century. On 6 October 1956, 1. FC Kaiserlautern played against Wismut Karl-Marx-Stadt in front of 110,000 spectators in Leipzig, won 5:3, and Fritz Walter gave the GDR champions the golden shot. In his book “So habe ich’s gemacht …” (That’s how I did it …) he describes it like this: “The cross ball coming from the right sank behind my back. Then I dropped forward, almost in a handstand, and hit it with my heel. From a distance of twelve or fifteen metres, the ball flew into the top corner of the goal. I was lucky that it was a goal. But the fact that I got to the ball at all in that situation and hit it, that wasn’t luck.”

It was skill. He was a gentle stroker of the ball, and old writings describe him as a brilliant playmaker and strategist who defended and executed on the side. In 61 international matches, Fritz Walter scored 33 goals. But virtually none of them came live and in full on television, and certainly not in colour, the pictures were just learning to walk. How good was Fritz Walter? It’s like Muhammad Ali, whose coach Angelo Dundee said, “We never saw the best Ali.” That’s because in his prime Ali was banned as a conscientious objector.

Young Walter went off to war and lost his best days at the front. In 1940, the Reich coach Herberger had nominated him for the first time, he was 19, today one would say wunderkind, and against Romania he scored three goals at the first attempt. Then in 1945 he returned home from Russian captivity, in 1951 he returned to the national team, and he said: “The war stole my best years.” He was past 30. Actually, it was all over. But it was just beginning.

The second life.

Walter no longer played for Hitler, but still for Herberger. The two were like father and extended arm, the filigree implemented the coach’s ideas, and conversely, Herberger was his best man when he walked the good-looking Italia Bortoluzzi down the aisle in 1948. The Palatinate people whispered worriedly in view of the fiery Italian: “The black witch with the red fingernails, I hope she doesn’t finish off Fritz.” In truth, she really got him going. Twice Kaiserslautern became German champions, and Atlético Madrid and Inter Milan lured him with money bags. Unsuccessfully. “Dehäm is dehäm”, Fritz is supposed to have said.

Then came the 1954 World Cup.

The miracle is always explained with the “spirit of Spiez”, but the spirit of the Black Forest was also behind it. I know that, my grandfather Artur came from Baiersbronn-Obertal, we always celebrated our annual family day there, and in the “Blume” inn at the entrance to the village, Herberger’s heroes have left their mark to this day, the old photos of the innkeeper with Sepp and Fritz keep the glorious past alive. Before the World Cup in Switzerland, the would-be world champions refuelled in Obertal for the miracle, and on the mini-golf course Fritz Walter set a new record: 32 strokes. As a boy, I later tried to break it every year, but surrendered unsuccessfully at some point.

At the World Cup, the Hungarians beat our Germans by eight strokes. Ferenc Puskas and his Puszta Wizards, undefeated in four years, dismantled Fritz Walter’s team in the preliminary round, the final score 8:3. In anticipation of defeat, Herberger had left out his best players as a precaution, and he would have been better off sparing his sensitive captain the humiliation. “For years I was so excited before every game that I felt sick,” Walter once confessed, “I often sat on the toilet until shortly before kick-off.” But Herberger, a fox when it came to people management, found the proven antidote at the “Belvedere”: in room 303 he combined the brooding man with the carefree Helmut (“Boss”) Rahn, a mood cannon. “Helmut,” said the boss, “build me up Fritz.”

The two complemented each other in such a way that the Grübler calmly sank two penalty balls into the Austrian box in the semi-final and the Boss first scored the 2:2 in the final against the unbeatable Hungarians and then also elicited the cry of all cries from Herbert Zimmermann: “From the background Rahn should shoot, Rahn shoots, Tooor, Tooor, Tooor – Tooor!”

As world champion, Fritz Walter received 2300 marks, a motor scooter, a couch set, a television, a hoover and a sewing machine. He wrote the bestseller “3:2” and, to make up for the lost war years, played in the 1958 World Cup in Sweden. And it almost came to the final duel between the kings: 37-year-old Fritz Walter against 17-year-old Pelé.

A terrible semi-final shattered the dream, especially that of the chronicler here, who was eight years old when he attended his first World Cup. A boy forgets nothing. I lay in front of the radio, first shaking and then crying. It was one of those music chests that were very popular at the time, on the left was the compartment with the eggnog and cognac, on the right the record player with the radio, and from it 50,000 Swedes roared their “Heja! Heja!” on that dreadful evening that ended with Herbert Zimmermann relaying to the home front how Fritz Walter was fouled and carried off the pitch by the cotrainers Schön and Gawliczek, his head buried in both hands. For the rest of the game he limped like a war invalid at right wing.

It was Fritz Walter’s last international match. Afterwards, he became an honorary captain, and among other things, a street, a school, a railcar of the Bundesbahn, a champagne, a football tournament, a foundation and the stadium at the Betzenberg were named after him, and in 2002 he was laid to rest. But he lives.

Because a great dead man never dies. In the “Belvedere”, his jersey has been reproduced for decades, and flanking it, on the occasion of a round birthday of the Bernese wonder, there was also an umbrella with the imprint “Fritz-Walter-Wetter” in Germany for 14.90 euros. It was modelled on the umbrella held out to the German captain when FIFA President Jules Rimet presented him with the World Cup trophy in the Wankdorf stadium.

It was a mess on 4 July 1954 – but that’s the way Fritz wanted it.

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World Cup in South Korea 2002: “It’s going to hurt for a few days”

World Cup in South Korea 2002: “It’s going to hurt for a few days”

Olli Kahn has gone into hiding, on holiday in Sardinia, recovering. How does a flawless player cope with a mistake – and then with one like the one he made on Sunday in the World Cup final in Yokohama?

When Oliver Kahn squatted on the ground after the World Cup final and leaned against the goal post with his back extended, looking for support, done with himself, God and the world, it was an advantage that no one handed him a gun – he would have gratefully given himself the bullet.

What was going on inside him?

To have a rough idea, you only need to know what father Rolf once reported from his Olli’s childhood: “When the boy lost at Mensch-ärgere-dich-nicht, the pieces flew around my ears.”

It must have been something like that, only much more terrible, when the best goalkeeper in the world lost the World Cup final in Yokohama last Sunday. Instead of the Olli-annoy-you figures, this time he peppered away his gloves, and for the rest he would have gone mad on the spot if, because it is the incurable professional disease of all goalkeepers, he hadn’t been before. A goalkeeper has to be crazy, otherwise he perishes on the fine line between hero and fool.

Early on in the 1990s, when he was in his early 20s, Kahn explained his job description to me. At that time, he was a promising talent in the goalkeeper’s box at Karlsruher SC and had not yet experienced much, but he already knew perfectly well what kind of professional challenge he had saddled himself with: “As a goalkeeper, you are a lone fighter,” he said, “a field player can clean up his mistakes, but the goalkeeper cannot. Life in goal makes you lonely.” Especially a mistake like that.

It was his only one in the whole World Cup.

What a great, unsurpassable, overwhelming tournament he had played, friend and foe had celebrated and feared him as “King Kahn” or “Titan”. Without the hotshot in goal, Rudi Völler’s DFB team would not have made it to the final, but would have flown home quickly after the preliminary round on sneaky routes, economy, wooden class, and probably been greeted at Frankfurt airport with a hail of tropical fruit and rotten tomatoes. But for three reasons the team ended up in the final instead, namely “with struggle, cramp and Kahn”, as TV reporter Marcel Reif truthfully reported. The best goalkeeper in the world was also voted the best player of the World Cup before kick-off. And then this: he loses this final match, the all-important one, the most important of his career.

“It will torment me for a few days,” he says in the dark night after the mishap.

A few days? All his life it will haunt him, for the world is mean. “The only people who remember you when you come second are your wife and your dog,” said the Briton Damon Hill when he once again couldn’t get past Michael Schumacher in Formula 1. Whereas Kahn is now trying to get rid of the ghosts not with his wife and dog, but with his wife and child. He has allegedly fled to Sardinia, on holiday or in therapy.

At this moment he is probably standing in front of the mirror in his hotel room, berating himself, or biting his cheek, as he occasionally does with opponents in the Bundesliga, with his chin thrust out to the hilt and a grimace of self-contempt. For only a flawless and number one is good enough for someone like Kahn, as it was in his early years at KSC, when rivals Famulla and Wimmer disputed his place in goal – poor Famulla, Rudi Wimmer remembers, never lay down in a room with Kahn in the hotel for safety’s sake, “for fear that he would press the pillow on his face at night.”

Olli’s wife doesn’t have to be afraid of that now, but she has to be prepared for everything else. Does he lash out in his sleep? Does he rattle off Rivaldo’s shot again in his nightmares? Does he talk to himself in a gruelling manner? Does he pound his fists against the bedside drawer? How does Kahn deal with this low point in his career, which he suspects there will be no lower? How does he deal with the pity and the knowledge that he has squandered the myth of invincibility? As he squatted down there in the grass, conquered, defeated and inwardly buried, Sat 1 reporter Werner Hansch said: “He comes closer to me at this moment. He is among us again – as a human being.”

For Kahn, this is no consolation. The alien against the rest of the world, you can get used to such headlines as a goalkeeper. “The stone-faced man is a giant,” a Dallas paper had marvelled at him after the US youngster Landon Donovan froze free in front of Kahn like a rabbit in front of a snake – the scene coincided with the blueprint transferred to real life of that TV commercial in which a penalty taker, seeing Kahn in front of him, turns and flees in mid-attack. So at some point, as a goalkeeper, you become a knight in steel armour against whom everything bounces off, year after year Kahn has become more and more worthy of this image, until last week he hovered completely above everything, “Bild” made it short: “The fist of God.”

At most, the Almighty still lived on the floor above Olli – but he obviously got fed up with the magic and set the celestial hierarchy right again with the shock of Yokohama.

How does the fallen giant now find inner peace again in Sardinia? No one knows, but it at least feels reassuring to hear that he allegedly likes to listen to Vivaldi and Tchaikovsky to relax and, in emergencies, also relies on the book “Mental Strength” by James E. Loehr. So there is much to suggest that Kahn will soon be spitting in his gloves again and that the world’s greatest gunners should start thinking about how best to take cover from him.

The German Chancellor has also intervened in the meantime and declared the return of the national goalkeeper to his old strength a top priority, so to speak. “Olli Kahn is not smaller after this mistake, that’s nonsense,” Gerhard Schröder has reassured the beleaguered nation, and flanking this we have heard a TV prophet on Sat 1 say: “A Kahn is coming back, stronger than ever.”

Even stronger? God help him.

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World Cup in Spain 1982: “Arrest them all”

World Cup in Spain 1982: “Arrest them all”

At the World Cup, we are threatened with a duel that is darkly reminiscent of an earlier one. It took place in Gijon, at the 1982 World Cup against Austria. It was one of those games where you sit in the stands as a reporter and no longer believe what you see. A “crime scene” commissioner spontaneously advised handcuffs after the broadcast.

A few days ago, Jogi Löw told us that his friendship with the US national coach Jürgen Klinsmann is intact, but is on hold in the run-up to the approaching World Cup duel in Recife – “we haven’t had any contact lately,” the national coach revealed, “and probably won’t talk on the phone before the match.”

Now everyone is in suspense.

For suddenly a situation has arisen in which good friends could well pick up the phone to talk either about the Brazilian weather, the beautiful women there or the charms of a draw. The irresistible charm of such a draw would be that Germany and the USA would then be guaranteed a place in the last 16, where the Portuguese and Ghanaians could play as they like and be out, even if they drank a beer in a handstand at the kick-off circle without spilling it.

You don’t believe in such a scenario?

Neither do I. But journalistic due diligence compels me to recall that Dutch colleague who sat down next to me on 25 June 1982 before the World Cup preliminary round match between Germany and Austria in the “El Molinon” stadium in Gijon, Spain, and said: “They’ll come to an agreement.” It took me a lot of effort to convince him otherwise – that the Germans would take cruel revenge on the Viennese for the “disgrace of Cordoba” that had just happened four years earlier. And on the other side, goalkeeper Friedl Koncilia had threatened the day before: “We’ll send the Germans home.

The starting position was as follows: Germany had lost sensationally to Algeria and had only one win to their name, the Austrians had won both their matches, and there was only one result that would lift them both past the North Africans into the intermediate round – 1:0 for Germany. Horst Hrubesch scored that 1:0, in the eleventh minute.

“And now – watch,” said the Dutchman.

As one of the last surviving eyewitnesses to the inconceivable that followed, I’m afraid I must meekly admit that the rest of the 79 minutes went largely like this: the ball was pushed back and forth for minutes by both teams in their own half and, so that goalkeepers Schumacher and Koncilia didn’t fall asleep, occasionally played back to them. They would pick it up with their hands, which was still allowed in those days, walk around their penalty area for a while with the ball under their arms, then kick it forward, and then it was the opponent’s turn again. In short, there was a tacit agreement not to change the favourable result. The duels were only alibi, a shot on goal no longer seemed advisable for reasons of table, and everyone kept to it.

Except for Schoko.

Walter (“Schoko”) Schachner, the upright Styrian, actually tried to score the equaliser at one point and later complained bitterly: “I was running up front like a maniac and was really pissed off, because they didn’t play me.” He even managed to get a yellow card in his overzealousness. He was clearly the last to understand what was going on. Schachner said later: “During the break, a few important players from both teams, who got on well with each other, agreed to leave it at that. But I didn’t hear anything.”

Inevitably, this led to the legendary incident when Schoko broke the non-aggression pact and shot hard towards the German goal. Friend and foe alike were stunned and outraged. The German stopper Karlheinz Förster, as reliable ear-witnesses recall, pointed at his opponent Krankl on the spot with a “Hey, Hansi!” to such an extent that he threatened his teammate Schachner, furious: “Schoko, wannsd` dös no amol mochst…”

While the German TV commentator Eberhard Stanjek indignantly spoke of a “disgrace” and his Viennese colleague Robert Seeger called on the spectators to switch off, 40,000 indignant Spaniards in the stadium waved white handkerchiefs and shouted “Kiss yourselves!” Meanwhile, the Algerians, feeling like shit, waved banknotes, which drove Austrian delegation leader Hans Tschak to the lowest point of the day, saying afterwards: “Of course, today was played tactically. But if 10,000 desert sons want to cause a scandal in the stadium, it shows that they don’t have enough schools. Some sheikh comes from an oasis, gets a taste of the World Cup after 300 years and thinks he can open his mouth now.”

I won’t tell you anything new, but the score remained 1:0. The local newspaper “El Commercio” published the match analysis the next day in the police report, and another Spanish paper found what it was looking for in the rummage basket of German history and ran the headline: “El Anschluss”. All the more relaxed, Hansi Krankl said on behalf of all the players: “I don’t know what anyone wants. We are qualified.”

By the way, the Dutch colleague slapped me on the thighs with a grin at the final whistle. And from home, the news reached us in Gijon that same evening that ARD presenter Hans-Joachim Rauschenbach had asked his studio guest, Viennese “Tatort” commissioner Kurt Jaggberg, after the game: “What can you do?”

“Arrest everyone,” said the commissioner.

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World Cup in England 1966: “I could see the insult on his face”.

World Cup in England 1966: “I could see the insult on his face”.

Rudolf Kreitlein became famous as the “brave little tailor” at the 1966 World Cup. He wanted to send the Argentinean Rattin off the pitch, but he played dumb and simply didn’t go. Out of self-defence, Kreitlein became a revolutionary – and invented the yellow and red card the next day.

As a journalist, you have to prepare yourself conscientiously for the risks of a World Cup. That’s why, before leaving for South Africa, I quickly went to the doctor to get vaccinated against plagues, but also to the Stuttgart theatre to get vaccinated against referees.

“Referee Done” is the name of the play currently running there. Thomas Brussig wrote it, and it’s a wonderful but almost tragicomic and sad play – about poor guys who run back and forth, aren’t allowed to score a goal and don’t get any applause.

On the stage, which has been redecorated into a dressing room, three actors slip into the skin of referee Uwe Fertig and his two linesmen. Shortly before kick-off, they clamour with each other about their inhuman fate of standing out there again as whistles in the rain and being put up against the wall as a black pig, they tear their mouths off about the rogues and swallow kings who shamelessly tricked them, In short, they show us how referees get in the mood before kick-off to be booed, mobbed, abused, shouted at, insulted, threatened and massacred in every conceivable way by 80,000 people.

Why do they do it anyway?

When it comes to the answer, Uwe Fertig slaps his thighs with a nasty look of revenge: “As a clever referee, you can still become immortal – all it takes is one questionable whistle to set the football world on its ear.

Living proof of this punchline of the stage play is encountered almost daily. With astonishing regularity that can no longer be a coincidence, smart referees lead the world’s most famous football stars through the ring like dancing bears on a nose ring in such a way that I spontaneously have to tell the crude joke about the devil here. He asks Peter on the phone if he can imagine a gripping football match between heaven and hell one day in the distant future, whereupon Peter warns him: “I’d love to, but you won’t stand a chance, because all the gods will be playing for us, Pele, Maradona, Beckenbauer…”.

“But we,” the devil interrupts him with a smile, “have the referees.”

In any case, one thing is true: particularly self-confident referees who think something of themselves prove on selected days that they absolutely need a certain sense of power for a fulfilled life, especially in the form of pulling out yellow and red cardboard lids with which they make the highest-paid millionaires stand at attention in short trousers with impunity.

Which finally brings us to the subject: Who invented these cards?

For the answer to that question, you don’t have to go far if you’re coming from Stuttgart’s theatre house at Pragsattel. Down into the city and then up to Degerloch, where the sought-after cult figure lives: Rudolf Kreitlein.

I once curiously rang his doorbell and he let me look into his thick folders, into which he pasted the newspaper articles from the most important day of his life. Until then, he was just a small-time tailor, but with a single whistle he then became world-famous overnight as the “brave little tailor” at the 1966 World Cup. “Even my referee’s outfit was homemade,” Kreitlein told me – and then the story with Rattin.

That was in the quarter-finals. England met Argentina at Wembley, and at some point Antonio Rattin, the captain of the Gauchos, looked down at the German referee from above. Rattin was a giant, and Kreitlein only a running metre, but for all that he was in the driver’s seat. Because the two were unable to clarify the delicate situation verbally, Kreitlein “read from Rattin’s facial expression” that he had insulted him – and “with the gestures of a castle actor”, an eyewitness later noted, the little brave one tried to send the Pampariesen off the field, in the form of flailing movements of the arm and flanked by a drawn index finger. But Rattin would not be scared away. Understand nothing, he hinted, only train station. Only after seven minutes of turmoil did armed London bobbies finally manage to lead the uncomprehending Argentine away.

“We have to find something so that players and spectators understand our decisions better,” Kreitlein said afterwards to English FIFA referee Ken Aston, who had already saved him from the worst during the ruckus on the pitch with full use of his imposing body. Legend has it that Aston had to stop at a traffic light on his way home through London that same evening, and suddenly he had a flash of yellow-red inspiration, and the next day it was clear to Aston and Kreitlein: warning cards were needed. Since then, football has been regulated in the same way as traffic.

As a brave little tailor and pioneering yellow-red pioneer, Kreitlein was invited to Bellevue Palace by the German President last year for his ninetieth birthday, for dinner and the ceremonial acceptance of the Federal Cross of Merit. Normally, only hand-picked Germans enjoy this award, but on rare occasions, a Swabian tinkerer who, with an ingenious invention, has prevented football from perishing from its misunderstandings and turmoil on the pitch also receives it.

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